When Joie de Vivre is a Tour de Force

Concert Review, by Bob Park

The weather might have been cold and blustery outside last Friday night, but the atmosphere inside the Frank Venables Auditorium was exactly the opposite. It was warm and friendly for the large audience who had turned out to enjoy the second concert in the South Okanagan Concert Society’s series. Fiddler Daniel Gervais, together with guitarist Clinton Pelletier and step-dancer Aline Dupuis-Gervais performed for us a highly eclectic and entertaining mix of jazz, classical, bluegrass, newgrass, country, old time, ragtime, and Celtic, which left us– two hours later– on our feet, clamoring for more. Fun for all ages and musical tastes!

To their foundational skills of technical facility and full command of the music, without which excellence does not occur, the three performers brought that more elusive “je ne sais quoi” of spontaneity, high energy and honesty. Above all, there was a tangible feeling that they themselves were really enjoying every second of what was happening. Contagious, to say the least.

We were drawn into their magic by the lively opening medley of fiddle tunes (toe-tapping and all!), including the well-known “Devil’s Dream”, which at one point morphed into a slow Gypsy Jazz minor swing. (Don Messer never had the courage to try that!). The evening continued with similar surprises and consistent spontaneity. Daniel on the fiddle and Clinton on the guitar never just went through the motions. They kept watching and listening to each other, expecting the unexpected. At one point I could hear Daniel call: “F”, which was followed by a quick key modulation and a whole musical gear shift on the violin that Clinton picked up on immediately.

Such outstanding guitar work, by a performer who is not content with just playing chords in the background, but has the skills to put the guitar on an even footing with the violin explains this duo’s success on Friday night. It was fun to listen to their constant interplay: trading fours and harmonizations of the melody between the two instruments. There are many guitar players out there, but guitarists such as Clinton Pelletier, who can trade licks on par with a hot fiddler, are very rare.

The evening passed very quickly, with the lively patter of Daniel engaging the audience with fascinating bits of history of the genres and styles prior to each piece. Clinton also gave us insight into the delightful music being created. After the performance, Aline told some of us about the regional variations in step-dancing, and demonstrated the different techniques of the Irish, the “Outaouais” (Ottawa valley), and the Quebec styles of dancing. Most interesting! I’m sure the whole audience would have loved to hear her explanations, too.

As it was, we all felt privileged to watch the beautiful step-dancing, and were mesmerized. The spotlight swung on Aline several times during the evening, as she danced to fiddle tunes that seemed to be made to measure for her movements and the beat of her feet. The prolonged applause given to her was most fitting!

The rich French Canadian heritage was highlighted again when Daniel sang and fiddled a humorous old “call and response” song, “tout en francais”, about a certain Lisette, who had some serious challenges in churning and sieving the butter through her “queue de chemise”. A rousing tune , sung at break-neck speed while simultaneously playing furiously on the fiddle—not many could pull off such a stunt.

Let me mention just a few more gems from an evening of highlights. Think: Hot Club of Paris in the “30’s. This music has never been as popular as it is today. Belgian guitar virtuoso, Django Rheinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grappelli are heros for our performers Daniel and Clinton, so no surprise that their take on the Gypsy Jazz anthem, “Minor Swing”, captured the style perfectly.

Another feat was the piece with which the first half ended: Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer’s “Wooly Mammoth”. The theme of stampeding mammoths being pursued by sabre tooth tigers makes for a technical monster of a piece. It features exceptionally fast and tight unison melody playing. With its interesting modality and advanced harmonization this piece takes bluegrass and moves it into the realm of classical and fusion jazz. To pull that off with a smile on your face is a real achievement!

Playing Bach, (Gigue from the Partita 2, in D minor), as an opener for the second half was a brilliant choice, which took some courage, since the unaccompanied Bach violin suites are considered the “Mount Everest” of the violin world. By “unplugging” , Daniel treated us to the natural, glorious sound of a well-played violin in a good hall. ( That alone makes buying a season’s ticket worth it, doesn’t it?)

We heard the hauntingly beautiful ‘Ashokan Farewell’, the ever popular ‘Yesterday’, and some pieces by Natalie McMaster. We were introduced to a rarely heard Swedish folk instrument (the nickel-harp, an unusual cross between a fiddle and a hurdy-gurdy). We enjoyed the fact that our vivacious fiddler was also turning his hand to composition, (Belize, Reverie, Gambier). We also had fun picking out tunes we recognized in the fun-filled medley that started out as Sugar Foot Rag but was transformed by our talented duo with bits and pieces of Cotton Patch Rag, Alabama Jubilee, and more.

The night concluded with a well-deserved standing O, and an encore medley that left me feeling I’d never done so much toe-tapping in my life. Hats off to Daniel, Aline and Clinton. Please come back soon!